Neo-Evangelicalism’s Shift into Neo-Fundamentalism?

From Bruce Ellis Benson:

Still, my question boils down to this: are evangelical colleges at risk of sliding from neo-evangelicalism to something like “neo-fundamentalism”? In other words, are evangelical colleges (or perhaps evangelicals in general) making a retreat from the world and embracing a new sort of solitude? Fundamentalism, as we noted, is not just about standing for the truth but doing so in a way in which one purposely separates oneself from the “world.” Here I should point out that this question cannot be answered simply by saying “this is what evangelical colleges are ‘intending’ to do.” The famous principle of double effect is that one might well intend to do X and, in so doing, also do Y. So I’m not asking whether evangelical colleges are explicitly moving to neo-fundamentalism. Instead, I’m asking whether, given the ways in which they are responding to the world around them, neo-fundamentalism is actually the direction they are heading even without realizing it or intending to do so. Further, and perhaps this is where the real rubber meets the road, if they are sliding toward neo-fundamentalism, does this mean that they are becoming culturally irrelevant as a result?

Perhaps my question comes as a surprise. After all, there was a time during which evangelicals as a whole exerted an important influence on politics or culture at large in the US. Because of the election of Jimmy Carter, Newsweek named 1976 “the year of the evangelical” (a bit premature, since many evangelicals hate him—and I choose the word “hate” quite deliberately). In 2000, George W. Bush, a self-identified evangelical, became president. Even as recently as 2005, Time had a cover story on “America’s Twenty-Five Most Influential Evangelicals.” Yet, even though political commentators still talk about the “evangelical vote,” that influence seems to be waning. In effect, evangelicals marched right into the culture wars—and were soundly defeated. My impression of evangelical colleges is that they are hunkering down, rightly realizing that they are increasingly in the minority when it comes to academic institutions generally and, more specifically, the broad trends of cultural awareness and political orientations of the students they have traditionally attracted. And this gets us back to the whole motivation of fear. Earlier, we noted that fundamentalism was motivated by fear of the modernists. But were Graham and Henry—and those who followed in their footsteps—ever able to get beyond that fundamentalist fear? From all of my exposure to evangelicalism, I simply can’t think of a more powerful motivating emotion in its history.

So I wonder if that fear, which at best went underground in evangelicalism but was really running the show all along, has now become so acute that, in place of the expansion into the world at large, evangelical colleges are slowly creeping back toward their fundamentalist strongholds. It seems that they are not just holding on to the fundamentals of the faith, as it were, but are seeking a new sort of double separation from anything that is other than their own interpretation of those fundamentals (and the entailments of that interpretation). That fear of the other might be understood as directed toward “liberal” Christians (with whom they cannot associate for fear of being made “unclean”), or perhaps it can be seen in all-too-thinly-veiled attacks on Muslims, or even completelyunveiled attacks on gays and transgendered people. Or, and perhaps this is the most troubling for both the church and the academy, maybe it is most often manifest in the difficulty of evangelical colleges (and, for that matter, evangelical churches) coping with faculty and students who simply ask too many questions.

Is what Graham and Henry tried in effect a grand experiment that is at risk of ultimately failing? Or is it slowly in the process of being revealed as the sham it always was such that evangelicals simply are fundamentalists—whether angry or not? Perhaps it is too soon to tell.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.